Monday, January 22, 2007

Lessons in Listening

“Do not be quick with your mouth . . . . let your words be few.”

~ Ecclesiastes 5:2b

“So how is our little chatterbox?”

That was the opening line of a letter my mom wrote to me when I was away at summer camp as a young girl. For those of you who know me, either personally or through my column, you have probably figured out that I won’t be winning any awards for my adherence to the aforementioned Bible verse. I have never been referred to as “a woman of few words” – and no one has ever asked me if the cat had my tongue. On the contrary, I would do well to commit Abraham Lincoln’s wise saying to memory: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt.” (Or, as they say, “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”)

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. . . .” ~ James 1:19

This past weekend I attended a three-day seminar which emphasized the importance of developing good listening skills. The course, which was held at Johnson County Community College, was called “Principles of Core Mediation.” The training manual was filled with interesting quotes, including this one from William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Well, this course definitely lit a fire under me.

"One of the greatest gifts you can give to anyone is the gift of your attention."
~Jim Rohn, Motivational coach and speaker

Some of you may be wondering what mediation is all about. Put simply, mediation is any process whereby disputes can be resolved with the help of a third person (which basically describes the role of a parent). Kansas Supreme Court Rule 901 defines mediation as “the process by which a neutral mediator assists the parties in reaching a mutually acceptable agreement as to the issues of the dispute. The role of a mediator is to aid the parties in identifying the issues, reducing misunderstanding, clarifying priorities, exploring areas of compromise, and finding points of agreement. An agreement reached by the parties is to be based on the decisions of the parties and not the decisions of the mediator.”

Based upon the premise that most people really prefer to live in harmony and resolve conflict, the mediation process provides a venue for them to air their grievances and work toward a resolution that will achieve their mutual goals. The mediator’s role is to act as a facilitator of dialogue between the parties involved. In other words, mediators need to stay out of the way and let the process work – and work it does. Statistically, 80% of all agreements reached through mediation are complied with, primarily because both sides had a say in the outcome – as opposed to a judge dictating how the problem will be resolved. Ideally, the process of mediation will not only lead to an acceptable solution to the current problem, but will result in better communication and improved interactions between the parties in the future.

There are several applications for mediation in today’s society which include disputes between community members, neighbors, parent/adolescent, employer/employee, farmer/lender, victim/offender, small claims, general civil cases, and domestic situations associated with divorce, such as child custody and parenting plans. All of these areas require a forum for the two disputing parties to openly discuss their differences, along with a sincere willingness on the part of both parties to reach a compromise solution.

“A problem adequately stated is a problem well on its way to being solved.”
~ R. Buckminster Fuller

My particular area of interest centers on victim/offender mediation, which falls under the category of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a victim-oriented process which views crime as the wound and justice as part of the healing. It is also used as an alternative to incarceration in cases involving juveniles. For example, if a teenager is caught egging a house, they could be required to meet with the victim to listen to them describe how their actions affected them. The homeowner may also request that the teenager be required to make restitution by cleaning up or repairing any damage, and/or submitting a written letter of apology. In some instances the victim will ask that the offender be required to complete several hours of community service. Although the juvenile offender is not required to accept the terms presented, this option provides them with a unique opportunity to right the wrongs committed, maintain a clean record, and avoid the penalties and fines the court would impose. In essence, the process gives them a second chance, while still respecting the victim by allowing them to participate in choosing an appropriate and just penalty.

Victim/offender dialogue is also utilized when the victim (or surviving victim) of a more violent crime seeks the opportunity to speak to the individual convicted of the offense. If the perpetrator is willing to meet with them, this can sometimes bring a sense of closure to the victims.

For me, the most difficult aspect of the mediation process, as alluded to earlier, will be learning how to listen reflectively and not interfere. The whole objective of mediation is for the mediator to sit back and simply guide the conversation between two other people – a skill that seems almost impossible for me to develop. But practice makes perfect, so wish me well!

“Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.”
~ Psalms 141:3